September 26, 2012

BOOKS: Heading Out to Wonderful (Robert Goolrick, 2012)

Heading Out to Wonderful is Robert Goolrick's second novel, and I don't know when I've seen such a severe shift in tone between an author's first two books.

Back in 2009, A Reliable Wife was a divisive book among my circle of reading friends, a delirious fever dream of conniving and romantic obsession. Some found its brash melodrama and coincidences too over-the-top; some (me included) were fascinated by its giddy loopiness.

And now, we get Heading Out to Wonderful, another story of obsessive desire. It's just as passionate, just as erotically charged, but in a much cooler way. Where A Reliable Wife boils over with the overheated melodrama and contrivances of opera (both soap and grand), Heading Out to Wonderful simmers with the low, slow heat of an Appalachian ballad.

It's 1948, and Charlie Beale has just arrived in sleepy Brownsburg, Virginia, which is "the kind of town that had only one of everything it had, and a lot of things it didn't have at all." Charlie is in his late 30s and finally looking to settle down; he's a charming man, and quickly accepted as a well liked member of the community. He falls in love with the wrong woman, the beautiful young Sylvan Glass, who dreams of Hollywood, glamour, and the movies, and who has essentially been sold by her family into a marriage to the town's richest man.

There is inevitably collateral damage in such affairs, and Goolrick gives us a marvelous array of characters whose lives are changed along the way. There's Claudie Wiley, the gifted black seamstress who sews for Sylvan the dresses of her dreams; Sam Haislett, the 5-year-old son of Charlie's boss, who will be asked to keep far too many secrets; and the Reverend Lewis Shadwell, who ministers to Brownsburg's black community.

The novel is a slow, inexorable march to tragedy, and when that tragedy arrives, it's incredibly powerful; there's a crushing sadness and a desperate longing to go back and find some way to avoid what was, in retrospect, inevitable.

Highly recommended, and even if you were among those who didn't care for A Reliable Wife, you should give this one a try.

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